Now 70, Cook said he doesn’t recall a lot of details about the year-long boycott that integrated Montgomery’s buses and launched the civil rights movement. He does recall how important buses were to people back then.
“Everybody rode the bus,” Cook said. “We would use it on shopping days. On Friday, we’d go down to Dexter (Avenue).”
Fifty-seven years after the battle to integrate Alabama buses began, riders like Cook are a relatively small community. While bus ridership has made a strong comeback nationwide in recent years, that renaissance comes after a decades-long decline — a decline that began, ironically, almost as soon as the hard-fought battle for integrated buses was won.
'Most people rode'
Buses figured prominently in the civil rights movement, in part because they were something almost everyone could relate to.
“Most people rode the bus, because most people didn’t have cars,” said Georgette Norman, director of the Rosa Parks Museum in downtown Montgomery. Even families with a car, black or white, were likely to have only one, she said.
Press accounts from the time say that in 1955 most of Montgomery’s 50,000-strong black population were bus riders. More recent estimates put the number of regular black riders between17,000 and 40,000. And black riders were just part of the passenger population, between 65 and 75 percent of all riders, according to newspaper accounts from the time.
These days, the Montgomery Area Transit System has a much firmer grasp of who’s riding the bus. The system makes about 4,000 trips per day, according to figures compiled by the bus system. Sixty-one percent of riders are women, 83 percent are African-American, and three-quarters have a household income of less than $20,000 per year.
Montgomery is not that unusual among Southern cities. There’s not a city in Alabama where more than 2 percent of the population uses the bus to get to work, according to census numbers.
Point A to Point B
Thomas Sanchez, who studies land use and transportation policy for the Brookings Institution, has seen the same trend in cities across the country. Half the bus trips in the nation, he said, take place within the five boroughs of New York.
Elsewhere, bus transit struggled for years.
While the civil rights movement was going on, America was building an interstate highway system and experiencing rising prosperity. That led to more cars — first cars for some families, second cars for others.
That killed much of the demand for buses, Sanchez said — and it aided “white flight,” the exodus of white and affluent residents from city centers to suburbs.
By the early 1970s, Sanchez said, ridership had declined so much, the federal government had to step in with subsidies to keep buses running.
These days, the suburbs are growing diverse, Sanchez said. But bus systems — and their mostly-minority patrons — are still struggling to adapt to landscape of urban sprawl.
“Point A and Point B are a lot farther apart than they used to be,” Sanchez said. When jobs were concentrated in urban centers, he said, it was relatively easy to connect people to the places they need to go. But increasingly, the new jobs are in the suburbs, while the people most in need of jobs — and a ride to work — are in city centers.
“We’ve reversed the direction,” he said. “People used to come from the suburbs to work downtown. Now we need to match the transit to people who need jobs in the suburbs.”
Rinaldo McGhee is one of those people flowing toward the suburbs. He took a bus Wednesday morning from downtown Montgomery to Gunter Industrial Park on the north edge of the city, seeking a job as a forklift operator.
McGhee said buses are still important to the public.
“A lot of people are looking for work, and gas is expensive,” he said.
Job-seekers like McGhee may be sparking a rebirth of the bus system.
“I can’t speak for other places, but our bus system is growing,” said Jack Plunk, principal planner for the East Alabama Regional Planning Commission, which operates the Anniston-area bus system, which got its start in the late 1980s.
Ridership in Calhoun County has grown by 72 percent since 2005, officials have told the Star. They cited the economy as one reason for that growth.
A similar surge shows up in nationwide statistics. The American Public Transit Association reported earlier this year that the total annual number of trips on public transit nationwide has risen again to late-1950s levels.
Still, the nation’s population is nearly twice what it was back then. And even with the recent growth in bus use, the number of total bus trips was lower than in the late 1950s, while rail commuting became a bigger slice of the public transit pie.
Montgomery’s ridership is up, too, from its low point in the 1990s, but it’s not close to the levels found in the nation’s largest cities.
“It’s nowhere near as prevalent here as it is in the Northeast,” said Kelvin Miller, director of the Montgomery Area Transit Service, the city’s current bus program.
Asked whether the ridership will ever be as robust as it was in the days of Rosa Parks, Miller said that wasn’t the city’s goal.
“The goal is not to get people out of cars,” he said. “It’s to provide a service to people who need it.”
Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.